Why I made my own lunch every single school day, from second grade to graduation

Editor’s note: I wrote this column in 2009, not long after I started writing about food for the Statesman. As you can read at the bottom of the story, Sinda’s daughters are now in high school, and though they made their lunches all through middle school, they now eat the school lunch.

The week before I started second grade, my mom told me she wouldn’t be making my lunch anymore.

Starting in elementary school, my sister and I started making our own school lunches. At the time, the quality of the school lunches wasn’t so great, and we were super picky kids. Now that school lunches have improved so much, I ask my own children to eat the school’s breakfast and lunch. If they wanted to make their own lunches, they could, but they choose not to.

RELATED: American-Statesman journalists share their elementary school photos

I’d just turned 8. It wasn’t just that my mom, a teacher in another rural town not far from our own, wouldn’t have time in the morning to make sandwiches for my sister and me. “I didn’t want you to feel like you were an elitist who was too good for school lunch,” she says now.

I was both a picky eater and the new kid in a small school, and I knew the reputation school lunches had. We’d just moved to Missouri, and I was already self-conscious about how my new classmates would view me, so I decided I’d make my own lunch.

With the exception of pizza or chicken patty days on the school’s menu, I made my lunch every day for 11 school years. My mom says she was surprised that I stuck with it for more than just a few weeks.

With school starting soon for many area students, maybe this is the year your kids start making their own lunch.

Hazel and Hannah Mitchel-Gevirtz’s mom, Sinda, said that it wasn’t a difficult transition to getting her daughters to make their own lunch back in 2009. They are in high school now and have transitioned to eating the school lunch. American-Statesman file photo

Sinda Mitchel’s daughters, Hannah and Hazel, started making their own lunches last year when they were in first and second grades at Austin Montessori School, where Mitchel says the culture encourages kids to do as much for themselves as possible. “Not only are they expected to have good food, but they are expected to be as independent as they can be,” she says. Before each school day, the girls pack a lunch that includes a grain, protein, fruit, vegetable and sometimes dairy, and no prepackaged foods are allowed. But within these rules, she says, anything in the house is fair game.

“It wasn’t hard for me to let it go,” Mitchel says. She says it would be easier to just do it for them, but she’d rather give them the opportunity to build a healthy relationship with food, to learn what they like, how much makes them full and how to prepare it. “The more choices we give them, the better,” she says.

In 2009, when Hazel Mitchel-Gevirtz was 7, she was already making her own lunches. American-Statesman file photo

For the first three years I made my own lunch, my choice was turkey and cheese sandwiches (no mayo) or peanut butter and jelly. Then I started to get more creative, packing favorite snacks like cheese quesadillas or cottage cheese and black olives in Tupperware containers.

I learned tricks for packing food to be eaten later. To stop pickles from leaking out of plastic baggies, you have to wrap them in paper towels. Chicken noodle soup stays warm in a Thermos. Crackers stored in the same bag with cheese get soggy by lunchtime.

I had always enjoyed grocery shopping with my mom, but now I had a vested interest in what went in the cart. I learned early not to ask for Lunchables because my mom showed me how many more crackers and cheese you could buy for less per serving. As we strolled the aisles, instead of indulging every gimmicky prepackaged food I reached for, my mom explained how that kind of food is marketed toward children and where to find the better-tasting, more-healthful and less-expensive alternatives. After all, she was making her lunch with what we bought, too.

My mom, who is a guidance counselor now, knew she was empowering my sister and me by not doing everything for us. “Anytime kids have input in what they eat or do with their time or the rules that are made, it makes them more responsible,” she says.

Our mom was a teacher when my sister and I were in elementary school, and she wanted us to start building culinary independence from an early age.

Of course, making my lunch every single day was a bummer sometimes, but once it became routine, I started to look forward to it, especially when I graduated to a cafeteria with a microwave. Hello, leftovers.

In high school, my football player buddies would complain about their mothers, who’d made them another turkey sandwich even though they’d asked for ham. “Make your own damn sandwiches,” I remember thinking to myself as I enjoyed reheated lasagna or Chinese takeout from the night before.

I grew to relish the control over what I ate. I knew how to make what I liked to eat, or at least how to reheat it. As you can imagine, these skills carried me into college: I already knew how to feed myself, which was one less thing to learn when I moved out.

“My ultimate goal was to raise independent daughters,” my mom says.

We got there, one sandwich at a time.

Hazel and Hannah Mitchel-Gevirtz

UPDATE: Mitchel says that her daughters, who are a junior and senior in high school, respectively, continued to prepare their own lunched through middle school. When they got to high school, they started to eat the cafeteria food but continued to cook at home. “Hazel cooked fresh lobsters for Thanksgiving a few years ago, and makes the most amazing pavlovas,” her mom writes. “Hannah loves to poach eggs and make scratch dumplings in chicken broth for a midnight snack, so they both have the cooking bug.”

She says that they are both adventurous eaters and afraid to try anything. “They have an appreciation of food. I never have to cater meals or restaurant choices to them, which I appreciate so much.”

From the archives: Bring your culinary passport to these World Cup watch parties

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on June 23, 2010. 

At Claudia Alarcón’s World Cup parties, there are two rules: Soccer games are shown only on Univision. (“American announcers are horrible,” says party co-host Will Larson.)

Soccer-loving friends gather at Claudia Alarcón’s house during one of her 2010 World Cup watch parties. Thao Nguyen for the AMERICAN-STATESMAN 2010

Second, any food and drink consumed during the 90 minutes of play must be representative of the countries that are competing, with two exceptions: “South African wine is allowed at all times, as is tequila, because I’m Mexican,” Alarcón says during one of the first World Cup games two weekends ago.

As she pours glasses of Indaba chenin blanc for guests who’ve just arrived, she has to shout over the staccato calls of the announcers and the chatter of the guests packed in the living room of her South Austin home. It’s only the first weekend of the monthlong World Cup, and by Monday, she’ll have prepared dishes from almost a dozen nations and already lost her voice.

During the 2010 World Cup, Claudia Alarcón holds up a flag brought back and gifted to her by Australian friends, Derek Chan and his wife Rebecca Knaggs, during the Australia versus Germany World Cup game. Thao Nguyen for the AMERICAN-STATESMAN 2010

There are few things as important to Alarcón as food, and soccer is one of them. So for the 2002 and 2006 World Cup, the freelance food writer, blogger and culinary tour guide started hosting daylong watch parties where the menu is as diverse as the teams that are playing.

The Mexico City native was just 6 years old in 1970 when her country hosted the world’s biggest sporting event, and every four years since, she’s been among the billions of fans who tune in to watch as the world’s best teams face off.

Up until this year, there weren’t many places in Austin to watch the games.

Rae Wilson, right, prepared potato pancakes with Martine Pelegrin at Claudia Alarcón’s house in honor of the Australia versus Germany World Cup game. Thao Nguyen for the AMERICAN-STATESMAN 2010

“In 2002, no one knew about it or cared that it was going on,” Alarcón says. She and her friends tried to find bars or restaurants to watch the games but had a hard time finding the big matches, much less the smaller ones. “I thought it would be fun to cook the food and have the drinks of the countries and have people over to share the food and watch the games,” she says.

Every weekend during the tournament, breakfast, lunch and dinner revolve around the indigenous dishes of the teams on the field. “It’s not super representational of the country but rather what people would be eating during the game,” she says.

She spends weeks preparing for the match-ups, digging through ethnic cookbooks, searching online, hunting down ingredients and calling up friends who were born or lived abroad to ask for suggestions. After all, what do Ghanans eat for breakfast and what’s a typical Serbian finger food? (Stuffed avocados and cigar-shaped meatballs called cevapcici, respectively, it turns out.)

Martine Pelegrin contributed several dishes during the 2010 World Cup watch parties.  Thao Nguyen for the AMERICAN-STATESMAN 2010

Guests often bring dishes of the teams they are rooting for. Rae Wilson fried her grandmother’s potato pancakes just before kick-off of the Germany-Australia game. Australian expatriates whom Alarcón met over sushi just a few weeks ago showed up with — what else? — shrimp kebabs in tow.

Australian kebaps were on the menu during a Australia versus Germany World Cup game in 2010. Thao Nguyen for the AMERICAN-STATESMAN 2010

Martine and Eric Pelegrin, who met while cooking at Chez Nous and once owned a charcuterie and supper club company called Bistro Le Marseillais , practically move in with Alarcón and Larson during the World Cup. “We go home to sleep,” says Pelegrin, as she assembles abend-brot, a German cheese and charcuterie tray of liverwurst and paper thin-slices of salami.

Many different kinds of German cheese sit on the table during one of the 2010 World Cup parties. Thao Nguyen for the AMERICAN-STATESMAN 2010

Everybody waits until halftime to dig in to the buffet inspired by countries a half a world apart: shrimp with mango cilantro sauce and apricot-glazed chicken squeezed onto plates next to cold cuts, potato pancakes and rye bread. Before long, talk shifts from Germany’s momentum in the game (they went on to wallop the Aussies 4-0) to why cilantro is called fresh coriander abroad and how liverwurst is really just poor man’s pâté. Pretty soon, the second half has started, but Germany is so far ahead, many of the guests, especially those rooting against the polemic powerhouse, linger around the island in the middle of Alarcón’s cobalt blue kitchen to spin stories from their own experiences abroad.

“Even if you’re not a soccer fan, it’s the World Cup,” Alarcón says when asked why the camaraderie is greater during the soccer tournament other international sports events like the Olympics. “It’s about the unity and bringing everyone together,” she says. “The Olympics just aren’t the same.”

Alarcón, a local food writer, hosts World Cup watch parties every year, including 2010 and 2014, and she’ll host them again this summer. Thao Nguyen for the AMERICAN-STATESMAN 2010

Cape Malay Bobotie

This savory-sweet, minced-meat casserole with an egg-based topping is considered one of the national dishes of South Africa.

1 Tbsp. butter, plus enough to grease pan
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 onions, chopped
1/2 tsp. garlic, crushed
1 Tbsp. curry powder
1 tsp. turmeric
2 lbs. beef and/or lamb, minced
2 slices bread, crumbled
1/4 cup milk
Finely grated rind and juice of 1/2 lemon
1 egg
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
3 oz. dried apricots, chopped
1/4 cup golden raisins
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and chopped
2 oz. slivered almonds, roasted
Pinch ground clove, cumin and coriander (optional)
6 lemon, orange or bay leaves (Thai lime leaves work as well)
For topping:
4 eggs
2 cups milk
1 tsp. salt

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 9-inch-by-13-inch casserole dish. Heat butter and oil in a large pan and fry the onion and garlic until translucent. Stir in the curry powder and turmeric, and cook briefly until fragrant. Remove pot from the heat. Add the meat, crumbled bread, milk, lemon juice and rind, egg, salt, pepper, apricots, raisins, apples and almonds. Mix in clove, cumin and coriander, if using. Put the mixture in the prepared casserole and level the top. Roll up the leaves and bury them in the meat mixture at regular intervals. Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees. Mix together the topping ingredients, pour over the meat and bake uncovered for 15 minutes or until cooked and lightly browned.

— Adapted by Claudia Alarcón from “Rainbow Cuisine” by Lannice Snyman (Konemann, 2001)

Coulis de Tomates

Fresh tomato sauce, or coulis de tomates, is a staple of the Provençal pantry. To add a French flair to grilled fish, roasted meats, soft-scrambled eggs or a number of other dishes, just serve with a spoonful of coulis on top.

2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 Tbsp. garlic, crushed and minced
1 Tbsp. sea salt
2 tsp. herbes de Provence
1 tsp. finely ground black pepper
3 lb. very ripe tomatoes, chopped
2 Tbsp. raw sugar
1 Tbsp. sherry vinegar

Heat oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, garlic and salt. Raise heat to high and sauté until onions are transparent. Add herbes de Provence, pepper and tomatoes and their juice. Combine well, reduce heat to medium and simmer until tomatoes have given off most of their liquid. Stir in the sugar and vinegar and lower heat slightly. Cook uncovered at a slow simmer until reduced by half. Allow to cool slightly; purée in a food processor. Strain in a sieve or fine colander. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Transfer to a storage container and allow to cool fully before storing in the refrigerator. Keeps up to three weeks.

— Martine Pèlegrin

Avocado With Smoked Fish

1/2 lb. smoked fish, such as trout
4 hard-boiled eggs, with yolks separated from whites
1/4 cup milk
1/4 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. lime juice
1/3 cup light vegetable oil
2 Tbsp. olive oil
3 large, ripe avocados
1 large red bell pepper, cut into slices (or a few tablespoons of pimentos in a jar)

Remove skin and bones from fish and flake the flesh with a fork. In food processor, blend hard-boiled egg yolks with milk until they form a smooth paste. Add sugar, salt and lime juice. Process in the vegetable oil, a teaspoon or so at a time. Add olive oil in the same gradual manner. Add egg whites and fish, pulsing to combine thoroughly but gently. Just before serving, cut the avocados in half, remove pits, and fill cavities with the fish mixture. Garnish with pepper or pimento and lime wedges to sprinkle on individual servings. Serves 6.

— Claudia Alarcón

Marcia’s Moqueca

Alarcón says this recipe was given to her by a hostess at the place where she and her husband stayed in Praia de Jauá, Bahia, in northeastern Brazil, where this dish is one of the flagships of the local cuisine. Dendé is a strongly flavored palm oil that can be found in ethnic markets. You may use olive oil instead, but dendé is traditional and provides its characteristic flavor.

1 lb. firm-fleshed fish fillets or steaks, such as snapper, mahi mahi or halibut
2 limes
2 cloves garlic
1 small bunch cilantro
Salt, to taste
2 small onions, sliced
2 tomatoes, sliced
2 small green bell peppers, sliced
3/4 cup coconut milk
1 Tbsp. olive oil or dendé (see note above)
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 tsp. salt

Squeeze lime juice over fish. Mash garlic and one stalk cilantro in mortar with a heavy pinch of salt and rub the fish with mashed mixture. Layer half of the onions, tomatoes and green bell peppers in a heavy pot. Place the fish on top. Add remaining tomato, bell pepper and onion and to a blender with the remaining cilantro, a splash of water and another heavy pinch of salt. Blend and pour mixture over fish. Bring to a boil, then add coconut milk, tomato paste and oil and mix carefully.

Cover and cook for about 20 minutes or until fish is done and sauce thickens. Serve with white rice.

— Claudia Alarcón

From the archives: In love, wield your words like a sharp kitchen knife — carefully

Editor’s note: This story originally ran for Valentine’s Day 2011. For date night that year, my ex and I took a knife-skills class, and I wrote about it, finding parallels between love and knowing how to properly use a knife. We aren’t married anymore, but I still like the story. It has some helpful knife tips, but also some observations on love and trying to make it in a marriage. For what they are worth. PS: I’m still using that $130 Wusthof.

Love cuts like a knife, but don’t use your kitchen knife to cut paper. Deborah Cannon/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

They say love cuts like a knife, but anyone who has ever been married knows that it’s words, not love, that are required to get the proverbial dinner on the table.

But words are also what can do the most damage. The sharper they are, the swifter the cut, and if you don’t use them right, you’ll eventually draw blood.

To learn a little bit about using knives — both metaphorically and literally — as they are intended, I took my husband to a knife skills class at Whole Foods Market’s culinary center just a few weeks before Valentine’s Day.

Keeping a kitchen knife sharp can be tricky, especially if you don’t have the right sharpening tools. Addie Broyles/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Slicing a mango and bringing up the fact that your husband still hasn’t gone to get the car registered both require a delicate handling to pull off without doing any damage. There’s a right way to go about it that is both careful and intentional, and a wrong way, in which you hold the knife at the wrong angle and, in a split second, set the whole night off course. (Let’s just hope stitches aren’t involved.)

Instructor Jay Cusick quickly settled the score on one long-running issue between us: Knives and wooden utensils don’t belong in the dishwasher.

“Look down the blade at what you are about to cut,” Cusick tells the dozen or so students who have gathered around a large kitchen island. Not what you have cut or what you’d like to cut next. Focus on the consequences of your actions. Right. Now.

“Let the knife do what it is supposed to do.”

In 2011, Jay Cusick was a teacher at the Whole Foods Market Culinary Center, where he taught a knife skills. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

Choosing the right tone is like choosing the right knife, and there is a time and a purpose for all kinds: the quotidian butter knife (an off-the-cuff “What’s for dinner?”) and the electric knife that only comes out once a year (the grave “We need to talk”). “Many knife injuries occur when laziness induces us to use the knife at hand rather than the correct knife for a job,” the class handout explains.

And then there is the chef’s knife. The everyday sturdy-handled silver workhorse that you can’t cook properly without but that needs proper maintenance to do its job. The day-to-day exchanges you have with your partner around which your lives rotate: planning vacations, paying bills and yes, figuring out what’s for dinner.

Chopping the knife up and down like a jackhammer is not what a chef’s knife is for. You are supposed to slide your knife through whatever you’re cutting, leaving the tip on the cutting board and pushing the blade back and forth, back and forth, dragging the tip of the knife on the wood. You should be able to glide the blade through even a hard sweet potato without too much pressure or force.

If you find yourself pushing too hard, your knife needs attention, and there’s a big difference between honing a knife and sharpening it.

It’s natural for a knife blade to curve to one side or the other after heavy use. By using a round steel rod at home, you can bring the still-sharp knife blade back to center and keep on cutting. But eventually, the blade in fact becomes dull and the only way to sharpen it properly is to take the knife to an expert who spends all day putting fresh edges on tired blades. (You can use a whetstone or electric sharpener at home, but both require a certain expertise.) But because sharpening a knife eventually whittles down the metal, you can only sharpen a knife so many times before it is worn beyond use.

The more frequently you hone your knife with a round steel rod at home, the less frequently you have to take it in for a big adjustment.

Over the past five years, Ian and I have done a lot of honing on our relationship. With two young kids and a still relatively new marriage, we’re constantly adjusting ­– in knife terms, realigning — how we handle even minuscule tasks like who takes out the trash and how socks should be folded. If we go too long without giving proper care and attention to our marriage, it just gets harder and harder to figure out how to get back on track.

Cusick tells us what a marriage counselor might tell a troubled couple: It’s not in class where you’re going to perfect your skills; it’s at home. Every grapefruit you cut into segments for breakfast, every slice of bread you saw off a French loaf for a sandwich, every onion you dice for dinner, you have to be aware of your technique and your tools.

And you don’t learn to turn a spiky pineapple into perfect cubes after one lesson. Proper knife skills take time to develop. “You have to make a correct attempt at it over and over again until the muscle memory sets in,” Cusick says. If your garlic isn’t perfectly minced one day, by all means don’t give up garlic altogether. “With time, practice and confidence, your speed will increase, but you do not need to look like a TV chef.”

Every person will grip a knife in a slightly different way, Cusick says, and inexpensive blades will get the job done, but it isn’t pleasant to use them. Treat yourself to a serious, well-made chef’s knife ­– I finally bit the bullet and bought a $130 Wusthof last year -­- and you’ll reap the reward for years to come.

Get one that feels right when you hold it. Then work with it in a way that maximizes comfort, control and safety while minimizing fatigue. Sound familiar?


From the archives: Meet the one and only Crescent Dragonwagon

Editor’s note: This story was originally on June 27, 2012.

Crescent Dragonwagon was a household name growing up.

Crescent Dragonwagon’s 2012 book “Bean by Bean” highlights all the things you can do with “that magical fruit.” With her customary humor and poignancy (she’s written 50 books), Dragonwagon shares stories, tips and recipes alike. Contributed by Crescent Dragonwagon.

At the time, the author was running the Dairy Hollow House, a nationally renowned bed and breakfast in Eureka Springs, Ark. She was a local celebrity for hosting people such as Bill and Hillary Clinton and Betty Friedan, and my mom relied on her “Dairy Hollow House” cookbooks as others did the red plaid “Better Homes and Gardens” book or “The Joy of Cooking.” (And no, Crescent Dragonwagon is not her given name. She made it up as a teenager when getting married to her first husband — the name outlasted the marriage.)

RELATED: This spicy black-eyed pea curry will kick off 2018 with a twist

Crescent Dragonwagon’s “Soup & Bread” book was to my mother what “The Joy of Cooking” was to others.

Only as an adult did I discover that, like her mother, Charlotte Zolotow, Dragonwagon also writes children’s books, many of which use food as a storytelling device (“The Bread I Baked Ned, ” “Is This a Sack of Potatoes?” and, my favorite, “Alligator Arrived With Apples: A Potluck Alphabet Feast“).

Many of Crescent Dragonwagon’s children’s books revolve around food.

This year, she’s back with both genres. “Bean by Bean,” a recipe-filled homage to the lowly legume, came out earlier this year, and “All the Awake Animals are Almost Asleep,” her first children’s book in almost 10 years, is coming out this fall. (Another first: Dragonwagon will record an e-book, so children at bedtime can hear her mellifluous voice read her own carefully crafted words.)

This book, her 50th, is Dragonwagon’s second on beans, but as she notes in the introduction, “beans have certainly come up, up, in the world since I first began writing about them.” Once lacking in social standing and availability and “reviled nutritionally as little more than starch, ” beans across the board are more appreciated than they ever have been.

The self-proclaimed “legumaniac” gets excited talking about all the possibilities a single bean presents.

“If you have a dry bean, you could join it with hundreds of its fellows and have it for dinner, ” she said last week from her Vermont home. (She and her late husband, Ned, turned the Arkansas bed and breakfast into a writer’s colony, which still exists today.) “Or you could rinse it, soak it and sprout it and have it for dinner in a couple of days. Or you could plant it and eat it as a shoot, eat it as a pod or eat it as a shelled bean. Then you could dry them out and plant them again.”

As one of the only plants that puts as much back into the soil as it takes, beans are helpful at every phase of their lives. “They are so generous.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that beans are one of the cheapest forms of protein available. “Everyone is watching their income now, yet you can still bring a giant dish of wonderfulness and protein to a potluck, ” she said.

We tend to think of beans as an ingredient for wintertime soups and stews, but many of the recipes in the book are perfect for summer, including dips, stir-fries and salads, such as this Black Bean and Sweet Potato Salad with Honey-Lime Vinaigrette. (One of Dragonwagon’s favorite dishes is a seven-layer Middle Eastern mountain dip that would be a nice change if you’re tired of bringing the same seven-layer Tex-Mex dip to parties.)

Dragonwagon says she pours the nurturing spirit that made her bed and breakfast so successful into two places: Fearless Writing workshops that she hosts at her home and, much to her surprise, Facebook. “Thanks to the Internet, I’m interacting with people about food and tender things in a different way, but in a connected way. I ran the inn for 18 years. That nurturing energy needs to go somewhere.”

This Black Bean and Sweet Potato with Honey Cilantro Vinaigrette is from Crescent Dragonwagon’s “Bean by Bean.” Addie Broyles/American-Statesman

Black Bean and Sweet Potato Salad with Honey-Cilantro Vinaigrette

For the honey-cilantro vinaigrette:
1 bunch fresh cilantro leaves
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/3 cup honey
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 1/2 tsp. salt
Plenty of freshly ground black pepper
Dash of Tabasco or similar hot sauce
1 cup olive oil
For the salad:
3 cups (two 15-oz. cans) tender-cooked black beans, drained well and rinsed
4 scallions, roots chopped off and whites and 2 inches of green sliced
1/3 lb. (about 1 1/5 cups) chilled, cooked green beans, sliced into 1-inch lengths (optional)
2 or 3 large sweet potatoes, baked, peeled and chunked

Salt and freshly cracked black pepper For the dressing, combine all of the ingredients except the oil in a food processor and buzz smooth. You may need to scrape the processor sides once or twice. If your machine’s pusher tube has a little hole, pour the oil into the tube in two batches and let the oil drip in as the machine runs. Otherwise, drizzle in the oil by hand. Taste for seasonings, then transfer to a lidded container or jar and store in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Combine the black beans, scallions and green beans, if using, in a large bowl and toss with about 1/2 cup of the dressing. Add the sweet potatoes and toss very, very gently to keep the tender sweet potato pieces somewhat intact. Taste. Correct the seasonings with salt, pepper, and additional dressing if you like. Pass the remaining dressing at the table. Dig in, and get ready for the compliments; act modest. Use additional dressing on lettuce salads or even on entrees like enchiladas or a stir-fry. Serves 4 to 6.

— From “Bean By Bean: A Cookbook: More than 175 Recipes for Fresh Beans, Dried Beans, Cool Beans, Hot Beans, Savory Beans, Even Sweet Beans!” (Workman, $17.95) by Crescent Dragonwagon

An über sweet story behind an old cookie called pfeffernüsse

I’d never heard of pfeffernüsse until 2012, when a reader named Sally Jo Hahn emailed me to try to find a recipe for her dad.

He was about to turn 92, and he absolutely loved these spiced “peppernut” cookies from his childhood. Hahn had some questions. I tried to find some answers and ended up having a memorable afternoon baking cookies with her. This story had fallen off the internet, so I’m republishing it today, on National Cookie Day appropriately.

RELATED: Our five favorite cookie recipes on National Cookie Day

Sally Jo Hahn lost her grandmother’s recipe for pfeffernusse, a traditional cookie made in countries throughout Europe during the holidays. With the help of dozens of recipes that readers sent in, she found one that was similar to her Oma’s, which we made together in her South Austin home. Many of the recipes called for eggs, but her grandmother’s used potash and ammonium carbonate, which she found online. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Dec. 12, 2012.

Sally Jo Hahn just wanted to give her dad a taste of one of his favorite cookies for his 92nd birthday this month.

The South Austinite emailed me in October to ask whether I knew where to find any old-fashioned pfeffernüsse recipes like her grandmother’s, which contained potash (potassium carbonate) and ammonium carbonate, ingredients used in the 19th century to add leavening and a crispness to the small, round cookies.

When her grandmother, Marie Rahn, and mother, Anneliese Hahn, died a year apart about a decade ago, the recipe got lost in the shuffle of their possessions.

These heavily spiced pfeffernüsse cookies aren’t found on my tables today, but they are fondly remembered by many who were born in post-war America. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

The cookies Hahn remembered were heavily spiced with cinnamon, cloves, anise, cardamom and nutmeg, and because they were hard as nails, they shipped well and stayed good for months.

We published her request and were inundated with recipes. More than 30 of you sent in your own family recipes and stories about these German cookies, which are also popular in a number of northern European countries.

I forwarded all the notes, including the handwritten ones, to Hahn, and last week, I helped her make a batch.

While we were rolling out the long ropes of sticky, dense dough, I found out that there was much more to her family’s love of pfeffernüsse than its signature spice.

Here’s how Hahn tells it: Her grandparents and mother emigrated to Michigan from what was then East Prussia after World War I ended. In 1944, her mother married Jerry Hahn, a soldier who was also from Detroit.

All in all, Hahn was deployed for two and a half years during World War II, including fighting under George S. Patton in the Battle of the Bulge, and during his time in Europe, his mother-in-law would send tins of pfeffernüsse in his care packages.

The irony is not lost on Sally Jo Hahn that her German grandmother sent German cookies to her father, who was fighting the Nazis not all that far from the part of Europe where her grandparents had left less than 20 years before.

Hahn’s grandmother used to send pfeffernüsse cookies to her dad when he was in Europe during World War II. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

The history of this particular recipe, of course, led to entirely different stories, a heartbreaking one of relatives, including young children, crossing heavily guarded borders in the middle of the night, and another of her dad staying up late to transmit Morse code with the help of coffee so thick that a spoon could stand up on its own in the middle of the cup.

For Jerry Hahn, slowly chewing on those rich, flavorful cookies from home made the nights pass a little quicker.

It’s no wonder Sally Jo Hahn was on the hunt for the recipe.

Unlike the photo we ran with the column, most of the recipes, including the one Hahn was after, did not call for powdered sugar. “My grandma grew up in East Prussia. They didn’t have powdered sugar, ” she said. “These were peasant cookies.”

They also didn’t have electric mixers or ovens that kept a steady temperature. To find the potassium and ammonium carbonate that were readily available to her grandmother, Hahn had to go online, where she discovered GermanDeli.com‘s extensive inventory. (The website also has a large retail store in Colleyville, which opened about three years ago.)

Though the German name translates to “peppernuts” in English, not all pfeffernüsse contain black pepper or nuts, though some of the recipes that readers sent in certainly did.

Maren Larsen Palmer’s recipe, which originated with her Danish grandmother, calls only for ground cloves, and a number of recipes relied on anise extract or oil to give the cookies that characteristic bite.

Jennifer Michie’s family favorite, from a church cookbook from a Lutheran church in North Dakota, calls for a cup of coffee thrown in the mix.

Many of you sent in recipes that have been in your families for generations. Helen Kott’s family, including her Aunt Dora, have likely been making pfeffernüsse in and around Fredericksburg since they moved there in the mid-1850s, and Martha Rinn’s recipe, which calls for eggs and no molasses or syrup, has been in her family at least 100 years.

(Ottilie Cleesen’s and Marie Offerman’s daughters were kind enough to email their mothers’ recipes in for them.)

One reader from Manchaca who wished to remain anonymous summed it up best: Though it is impossible to replicate a memory, especially one created by an “Oma, ” the search itself is a gift.


This recipe is a combination of several, including one from Sally Jo Hahn’s cousin Jutta Rahn and another from Buzz Moran’s grandmother Annie. It’s as close as Hahn has gotten so far to what her Oma once made.

1 cup Karo syrup (light or dark) or honey
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter
3 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 tsp. ground cloves
2 tsp. ground ginger
2 tsp. ground cardamom
2 tsp. ground nutmeg
Pinch ground star anise
4 cups flour
1 ½ tsp. potassium carbonate (pottasche)
Pinch ammonium carbonate (hirschhornsalz)

In a small saucepan, mix together the Karo syrup or honey, sugar and butter and bring to a boil. Let the caramel-like mixture cool. While that is cooling, whisk together the spices and flour in a large bowl. Reserve.

In a small bowl, heat 2 tbsp. water until warm but not hot. Dissolve the potassium carbonate and ammonium carbonate in the water and then add all to the cooled syrup/butter mixture.

Slowly add the syrup mixture to the flour mixture in small batches, incorporating the ingredients with a wooden spoon as you go so that the syrup doesn’t end up in a blob in the bottom of the bowl.

Once the dough is starting to come together, you can use a stand-up mixer with a dough hook attachment to help bring it together, or you can continue to use a spoon and your hands.

When the dough can be pressed together into a ball, refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

After the dough has cooled, place a chunk of the dough on a floured surface and roll into a long rope about as thick as your thumb.

Place on a baking sheet and continue making ropes with the dough. Cover with a towel or plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Remove ropes from fridge and cut into ½-inch pieces. Place pieces with a little space between them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 8 to 9 minutes, or until slightly puffed up and only slightly browned. Cool on a cookie rack.

(You can toss them in powdered sugar when they are still warm, but this isn’t the Hahn family way.)

When completely cool, store in a sealed tin or glass jar. The cookies will continue to harden as they cool, but dipping them in coffee or milk will soften them.

— Recipe from Jutta Rahn, Ontario, Canada


Janice Friesen’s Oma’s recipe, which she says she makes in large batches to give cookies away to neighbors, family and friends this time of year, calls for shortening, baking powder and an egg, a totally different set of leavening agents, but one that makes for a similar, if less tooth-cracking cookie.

2 cups sugar
1 cup shortening
1 cup dark Karo syrup
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground allspice
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground cardamom
1 tsp. ground star anise
5 cups flour, plus more for dusting

In a large bowl, cream together the sugar and shortening with an electric mixer. In a small bowl, combine egg and Karo syrup, and in another large bowl, whisk together the salt, baking powder, spices and flour. Mix the wet ingredients together and then slowly add the flour.

On a floured surface, roll the dough into long ropes and then chill for at least an hour.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Remove dough ropes from fridge and cut into ½-inch pieces. Place pieces on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes and let cool. Store in an airtight container.

— Recipe by Ann Friesen


Ask Addie: I love cake balls, but they are so expensive! How do you make them?

Call them cake balls, call them cake pops or call them plain delicious.

Cake pops were a huge dessert trend starting around 2010, but they remain a fun project for families to make at home. Contributed by Aimee Pruett.

Today’s news that Austin Cake Ball is hitting the Williams Sonoma catalog made me remember a 2010 story I did with uber creative Austinites Kathy Phan and Aimee Pruett. These two friends had been collaborating on the cutest cake pop posts that I asked them to teach me how they made them. We timed the story for Easter, but you could easily make these into a winter holiday dessert, too.

RELATED: Williams Sonoma catalog now selling this Austin treat

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on March 31, 2010.

Tired of chocolate bunnies and Cadbury eggs? Sweet treats are as essential to Easter baskets as the rainbow of dyed eggs that the Easter Bunny hides each year, but this year, make room for a new treat: cake pops.

And with a few strategically placed sprinkles and chocolates, you can create animal-shaped cake pops so cute that they will send Peeps cheeping back to the marshmallow factory.

Cake pops, chocolate-coated cake balls on a stick, are the cupcake of 2010. Several local companies, including Holy Cacao and Austin Cake Ball, sell the trendy dessert that is surprisingly easy to make at home. With a box of cake mix, a can of frosting, lollipop sticks, melting chocolate (also called chocolate bark or candy melts) and a helping hand from a creative young chef in the house, you can make cake balls on a stick that might just make kids on Easter morning forget there are eggs to be hunted in the first place.

When cake ball shops started popping up around Austin last year, Kathy Phan tried them and thought they were good, but she didn’t catch cake-pop fever until she saw the cutesy cake balls on a stick that sites like Bakerella have popularized.

Phan, a crafty twentysomething with an eye for design, first made cake pops in the shape of the Twitter bird for a New Year’s party in January. Friends raved about them – where else – on the social networking site, and Phan started posting her creations on her blog, making cake pops in the shape of dogs, basketballs and fish. “For me, it’s an outlet for me to be creative, ” she says. She’s moving on to more complicated pops, like Fabergé eggs. Will she quit her day job marketing kitchen appliances online to sell cake pops? Not any time soon, she says, but she is looking for a space to make custom cake pops to start a side business.

Make sure you let the cake cool before breaking into pieces. Contributed by Aimee Pruett.

Phan says that you can make cake pops from scratch, using homemade cake and frosting, but it’s easier and usually just as tasty to use boxed cake mix and canned frosting. The easy part is making the cake mix according to the directions on the box. The hard part is waiting until the cake has cooled entirely before starting the project. Phan says you can make the cake up to two days ahead of time, as long as you cover it well with aluminum foil.

To turn cake into a cake ball or cake pop, you mix in icing with the cooled, crumbed cake crumbes. Contributed by Aimee Pruett.

After you’ve baked the cake and have let it cool, break it apart in a large bowl until the cake has an even crumbly texture. Mix in the can of frosting by hand or with a stand-up mixer. Depending on how moist the cake is, you might not need to use the entire can of frosting, Phan says. Then, using your hands just as you would make meatballs, roll the cake-frosting mix into small balls. (A melon baller or cookie scoop will help make evenly sized balls.) The size of the cake balls depends on the size of the lollipop or cookie sticks you’re using. For thin paper lollipop sticks, cake balls should be about the diameter of a quarter. For cookie sticks, which are made of plastic and are thicker, the cake balls can be larger. Place the cake balls on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper and refrigerate for at least an hour. (You also can place them in the freezer for 30 minutes.)

To prepare the chocolate coating, heat the melting chocolate in a small dish or ceramic dipping pot in the microwave at 50 percent heat, stirring chocolate every 30 seconds until completely melted. A double boiler also works to melt the chocolate.

Phan says you’re looking for a texture that is slightly thinner than yogurt or pudding, and you might need to add a hint of shortening to thin it out.

Once the cake balls are cooled and the chocolate is warmed, dip about half an inch of the end of a stick in the chocolate coating and push about halfway into the ball. The coating helps the ball stay on the stick. After putting sticks in all the cake balls, refrigerate the cake pops again for at least 30 minutes.

After refrigeration to set the cake balls, lollipop sticks are dipped in icing and inserted and the balls are transformed into cake pops. Contributed by Aimee Pruett.

When they are cooled, hold on to the stick and swirl the cake ball in the chocolate coating, covering the entire surface. (It took me a few pops to get the hang of this, but if the chocolate seems to be uneven or too thick, try heating it just a few more seconds in the microwave.)

To let the cake pop dry upright, push the stick of the pop in a foam block.

To make a chick from a basic cake pop, you’ll need yellow melting chocolate, candy-coated miniature chocolate chips, flower-shaped sprinkles and a marker with edible ink. After making a regular cake pop coated in yellow chocolate, allow the coating to set. While they are cooling, pick out orange and yellow sprinkles and chocolate chips. Using a toothpick to apply the coating, place a dab on the pop to act as glue and apply the chip and sprinkles as the beak and feet; then draw the eyes.

We made these cake pops for Easter, but winter-themed cake balls would be a fun treat for a holiday party. Contributed by Aimee Pruett

Using this technique, you can make a whole zoo of cake-pop animals. To make parts like ears, use the melted chocolate to create the desired shape on wax paper and let it cool. Once the shape hardens, affix it to the pop with more melted chocolate. Pretzels, licorice and chow mein also make fine arms, tails or antlers.

Phan created Fabergé eggs by piping small lines of melted white chocolate from squeeze condiment bottles and then sprinkling them with silver balls, sugar pearls or dusting sugar before the lines dry.

For a simple decoration, try sprinkling the pops with any kind of sugary sprinkle, toasted nuts or coconut just after dipping the cake balls in the chocolate coating.

Most grocery stores carry an array of cake mixes and frosting, so get creative in your flavor combinations. You could dip carrot cake mixed with cream cheese frosting in orange-colored coating. What about lemon or orange cake with vanilla frosting dipped in yellow candy melt? You can combine half peanut butter and half chocolate frosting to make cake balls that taste like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, another Easter favorite that might get squeezed out if you go cake-pop crazy this year.

Craft stores such as Hobby Lobby and Michael’s have foam blocks and many of the lollipop sticks and candy melts you’ll need to create cake pops, but specialty bake shops such as Make It Sweet have an even larger selection of chocolate colors, sprinkles and decorating supplies, including markers with edible ink. Most grocery stores will have regular or white melting chocolate or chocolate bark, but you’ll need an oil-based food coloring from a specialty bake shop to turn white chocolate into spring chick yellow.

How to make the one and only chile con carne, according to Robb Walsh

With this chilly weather, everyone’s thinking about warming foods.

This gray afternoon, I went digging for my own go-to chili recipe — with sweet potatoes, black beans and a weird mix of spices — but I can’t find it, so I thought I’d dig into our archives to find the next best thing: Robb Walsh’s go-to chili.

Robb Walsh’s El Real restaurant in Houston serves this Chili con Carne made with a from-scratch chili powder. Both recipes are available in Walsh’s new book, “The Chili Cookbook.” Photo by Eva Kolenko

This is the Houston food writer’s recipe for chili con carne the way the make it at El Real Tex-Mex Cafe in Houston. He originally published this his 2015 book, “The Chili Cookbook: A History of the One-Pot Classic, with Cook-off Worthy Recipes from Three-Bean to Four-Alarm and Con Carne to Vegetarian” (Ten Speed Press, $18.99), which remains a definitive guide to Texas’ official state dish (for now).

RELATED: The only vegan chili recipe you’ll ever need

Unlocking the secrets of dried beans

“The Chili Cookbook” by Robb Walsh

El Real’s Chili con Carne

Be sure and use a  freshly made homemade chili powder for a full-flavored chili. Don’t skip the step of dry toasting the cumin seeds — it really improves the flavor.

— Robb Walsh

2 Tbsp. cumin seeds
8 oz. bacon, chopped
3 lb. beef chuck, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
2 onions, chopped
1/4 cup homemade chili powder (see recipe below)
2 tsp. sweet paprika
1 tsp. dried Mexican oregano
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1/2 tsp. salt
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1 3/4 cups beef broth
1 (28-oz.) can pureed tomatoes
2 dried ancho chilies, stemmed and seeded

Toast the cumin seeds in a large skillet over medium-high heat until fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes. Using a smaller frying pan or a metal or wooden tool with a flat surface, crush the seeds coarsely. Set aside.

Cook the bacon in the skillet over medium-high heat until crisp. Remove the bacon and reserve. Over high heat, brown the beef in the bacon drippings left in the skillet and set the meat aside. Over medium heat, sauté the onions in the remaining drippings until lightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes.

Add the toasted cumin, chili powder, paprika, oregano, black pepper, thyme, salt and garlic to the cooked onions and sauté for 1 minute. Crumble in the bacon, add the beef broth, 1 cup of water, the tomatoes, ancho chilies and the beef.

Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover partially and simmer until the meat is very tender, about 2 hours, adding water as needed to maintain the desired consistency.

Alternatively, transfer to a slow cooker set on low and cook for at least 6 hours and up to 8 hours, until the meat is very tender.

Remove the anchos, puree in a blender, and return to the pot. Serve in a bowl with chopped onions and shredded cheese, with saltines, over tamales, rice or potatoes, in a Frito Pie or combined with beans. Serves 6.

Homemade Chili Powder

Toasting chiles and cumin seeds in your own kitchen and grinding them in a spice grinder makes the best chili powder of all. This recipe calls for ancho chiles, but you can use any combination of dried chiles.

5 whole dried ancho chiles (about 2 ounces)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon dried mexican oregano, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

Remove stems and seeds from anchos and spread the peppers out flat. Reserve seeds. Place chiles flat on a comal or cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Being careful not to burn them, lightly toast until they’re brittle, then remove and cool. Toast the cumin in hot comal, stirring and shaking until fragrant. Add some of the chile seeds, if desired. (They will make the chili powder hotter.)

Cut chiles into small strips with scissors. In a clean coffee grinder, grind strips in several batches until powdered. Grind cumin and chile seeds. Combine powdered chile, ground seeds, cumin, oregano, and garlic powder in a mixing bowl. Grind coarse powder in batches in coffee grinder until fine, about 2 minutes. Store in an airtight container until ready to use.

— From “The Chili Cookbook: A History of the One-Pot Classic, with Cook-off Worthy Recipes from Three-Bean to Four-Alarm and Con Carne to Vegetarian” by Robb Walsh (Ten Speed Press, $18.99)


From the archives: The curious history of why Americans love s’mores

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on May 26, 2010.

Sylvester Graham would roll over in his grave if he knew about s’mores.

Homemade graham crackers and homemade marshmallows for s’mores. Laura Skelding / American-Statesman

The 19th-century minister and diet reformer who invented graham crackers dedicated his life in the early 1800s to teaching “Grahamites” about the health and moral benefits of a meat-free diet of simple, unseasoned food. Roasted marshmallow and chocolate sandwiched between two of his namesake crackers is exactly the kind of indulgent food Graham preached against, but despite his healthful lifestyle, he died at age 57, several decades before that first curious camper took a bite of what has become summer’s sweetest guilty pleasure.

Memorial Day kicks off the s’more season, when millions of Americans will tear into bags of marshmallows, chocolate bars and graham crackers, forage around the campsite for just the right roasting stick and debate among themselves how much char is too much to make the perfect s’more.

No one knows for sure who first thought to heat up marshmallows over an open fire and squish them with chocolate and crackers, but the first recipe for a “some more” — as if you needed one — appeared in a Girl Scout handbook in 1927. It’s likely that people first started making them in the late 1800s, which is when all three ingredients were first readily available.

Marshmallows date back to 19th century France, where candymakers used the sap of the mallow root to make a fluffy confection. You can make them from home with the right equipment. Laura Skelding / American-Statesman

Around the same time Graham was spreading his health food gospel, French candymakers on the other side of the Atlantic discovered how to create a fluffy white sweet confection from the sap of the mallow root, which had long been used to treat respiratory ailments and sore throats. By the time the cylindrical-shaped puffs were invented a century later, the natural mallow was replaced with gelatin. (Another reason Graham would disapprove: Gelatin is made from animal parts.)

No s’more is complete without chocolate. Even as Americans’ palates for different varieties of chocolate has matured, Hershey’s milk chocolate remains the standard.

You can make s’mores with so many different kinds of chocolates, marshmallows and even crackers. Laura Skelding / American-Statesman

Upgrading to artisan chocolate bark or bars, including those from local companies such as Fat Turkey, Viva Chocolato, Arte y Chocolate, Innocent Chocolate or Chocbite, is an easy way to spiff up your sandwich, or you can replace regular chocolate with candy bars like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or Kit Kat bars. Bored with graham crackers? Skip them altogether and use Oreo or Nutter Butter sandwich cookies instead.

But for a really lavish treat, try making your own marshmallows and graham crackers. Marshmallows are slightly trickier to make only because they require heating a mixture of corn syrup, sugar and water to a soft ball candy stage (about 235 degrees), but after you’ve tried a homemade one that tastes like a Mexican vanilla-flavored cirrus cloud, the store-bought ones seem like hockey pucks.

Not a fan of vanilla? Swap it with another flavor extract like orange, lemon, coconut or even peach. (Exotic extracts are available at cake supply stores or online.) With just a few drops of food coloring, you can make marshmallows of just about any color of the rainbow.

Store-bought graham crackers today aren’t exactly the health food Sylvester Graham intended them to be, and your homemade ones, even those made with whole wheat flour, won’t be either. True graham crackers are made with graham flour, a combination of fine-ground white flour and coarse-ground wheat bran and germ, but most recipes simply call for whole-wheat flour and a lot of butter and brown sugar. Unlike the dry, stick-in-your-teeth crackers from a box, homemade grahams have a delicate texture, thanks to the butter, and a complex, slightly savory flavor which offsets the sugary overload from the marshmallows and chocolate.

Homemade marshmallows melt differently than store-bought ones, but they can make for a memorably gooey s’more. Laura Skelding / American-Statesman

A warning about roasting homemade marshmallows: Because they don’t contain the stabilizers found in packaged marshmallows, they heat up and melt much more quickly. They are likely to fall off your stick before catching on fire, but even lovers of charred marshmallows won’t mind when they lick airy, warm marshmallow cream off the side of a homemade s’more.

You can make s’mores indoors on a gas stove, in the microwave, inside a toaster or even on a grill (wrapped in aluminum foil, Hershey’s suggests), but playing with fire is half the fun of making them. A handful of restaurants and coffee shops, including the downtown coffee shop Halcyon, offer tabletop-contained fire units for roasting marshmallows for s’mores, but it’s hard to beat the smoke-in-your-face challenge of roasting them in a real fire.

Hot coals provide a more even and often hotter heat than the flicking flames above the wood, but make sure you have extra marshmallows on hand in case you drop some in the fire. Long metal kebab skewers are good for roasting, as are sticks, of course, but avoid wire coat hangers, which are often coated in plastic.

S’mores aren’t exactly a sophisticated dessert, but they’ve made their way to the White House. At the state dinner for Mexico’s president last week, chef Rick Bayless served chocolate-cajeta tart with toasted homemade marshmallows, graham cracker crumble and goat cheese ice cream for the president and his dinner guests. No roasting stick required.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504



3 pkg. unflavored gelatin (a small box, such as those sold by Knox, usually contains four packages)

1 cup ice cold water, divided

12 oz. granulated sugar, approximately 1 1/2 cups

1 cup light corn syrup

1/4 tsp. kosher salt

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar

1/3 cup cornstarch

Nonstick spray

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with either a whisk or beaters, pour a half-cup of the water and stir in the gelatin. (It will congeal while you heat the sugar mixture.)

In a medium saucepan, combine the remaining 1/2 cup water, granulated sugar, corn syrup and salt. Place over medium high heat, cover and cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Uncover and continue to stir and cook for approximately seven to 10 minutes until the mixture reaches soft ball candy stage, between 235 and 240 degrees. (Don’t guess on this step. Use a thermometer, preferably a candy thermometer.) Once the mixture reaches this temperature, immediately remove from the heat.

Turn the mixer on low speed and slowly pour the hot sugar syrup into the gelatin mixture. Once you have added all the syrup, increase the speed to high. Continue to whip until the mixture becomes white, thick and lukewarm, approximately 12 to 15 minutes. Add vanilla during the last minute of whipping. (You can substitute other extracts, but note that some, such as peppermint, are stronger in flavor and won’t require the full amount. This is the stage where you also can add a few drops of food coloring.)

While the mixture is whipping, prepare a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking pan. In a bowl, sift together confectioners’ sugar and cornstarch. Spray the pan with nonstick cooking spray and add the sugar and cornstarch mixture. Shake the pan from side to side to move it around and coat the bottom and sides of the pan. Return the remaining mixture to the bowl for later use.

After the sugar syrup and gelatin has formed an airy cream, pour the mixture into the prepared pan, using a lightly oiled spatula for spreading evenly into the pan. Dust the top with enough of the remaining sugar and cornstarch mixture to lightly cover. (You might need to re-sift the combination to ensure even coating.) Reserve the rest for later. Allow the marshmallows to sit, uncovered at room temperature, for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.

When you’re ready to cut the marshmallows, loosen the sides and bottom of the solidified mixture with a spatula that has been dusted with the sugar and cornstarch mixture. Turn the marshmallows out onto a cutting board that has been dusted with sugar and cornstarch mixture and cut into squares using a pizza wheel or a long serrated knife dusted with the confectioners’ sugar mixture. Once cut, lightly dust all sides of each marshmallow with the remaining mixture, using additional if necessary. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.

­- Adapted from a recipe from Alton Brown’s Food Network show ‘Good Eats’


Graham Crackers

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling

1/2 cup whole-wheat flour

3/4 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature (reduce salt to 1/2 tsp. if using salted butter)

1/4 cup dark or light brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup honey

Sift together all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, salt, baking soda and cinnamon in a bowl.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar and honey on medium until well-combined, about a minute. Add half of the dry ingredients and combine fully before adding in the rest.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 30 minutes or up to 2 days.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with a nonstick baking sheet such as Silpat or parchment paper.

Put half the chilled dough on a lightly floured surface and roll into a rectangle between 1/8- and 1/4-inch thick. Using a pizza cutter, cut the dough into squares or rectangles and use a spatula to transfer them to the baking sheet. Gather the scraps and add to the chilled dough. Using a fork, pierce each rectangle or square with two rows of holes, and place the pans in the oven. Bake for 13-16 minutes or until the crackers are golden brown. (They will darken slightly as they cool.)

Using a spatula, move the crackers to a wire rack to cool. Repeat with the second half of the dough. Makes about three dozen crackers. Stored in an airtight container, the crackers will keep for about a week.

­- Adapted from ‘The Craft of Baking’ by Karen DeMasco and Mindy Fox (Clarkson Potter, 2009)

From the archives: Chef-turned-farmer raises chickens, ducks, rabbits at Countryside Farm near Bastrop

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on July 9, 2008.

Sebastien Bonneu knows he has a dirty job.

Raising fowl and rabbits is one thing, but slaughtering and processing them for sale is another, more gruesome and intimate task.

“It’s like any other line of work, ” he says recently while walking among chickens at Countryside Farm, his small farm near Bastrop. “Sometimes you just don’t feel like doing it.”

Esther, Margaux, 2, and Sebastien Bonneu at the pond on the grounds of their poultry farm in Cedar Creek Texas in 2008. Nell Carroll/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

But somebody’s got to do it, and 30-year-old Bonneu, who grew up on a 2-acre farm near Bordeaux, France, would rather do it himself and do it his way, raising by hand and processing by hand everything from chickens and ducks to quails, pheasants, geese and rabbits. He sells the meat at farmers’ markets and to high-end restaurants in Austin.

With the slow food movement — an emphasis on appreciating food, which includes cooking with locally sourced foods – growing in recent decades, this concept isn’t exactly foreign in the United States now. And someone has to do the plucking and worse labor that Sebastien, most of the time, enjoys .

He landed in Austin via the Rio Grande Valley, where he moved for a pastry job at a French bakery in 1998. Trained as a baker for two years in France, he was on the same track as his father, who is still working as a chef in France.

In McAllen, Bonneu met Esther, who’d lived and worked in France and who was studying for an international communication degree. Even though the bakery failed (“It was a quickfire, ” he recalls) and his family was still in France, Sebastien Bonneu was in Texas for good.

He and Esther married and set their eyes on an area where he could utilize his chef skills. They moved to Austin in 2000, and on one of their first nights in town they went to dinner at the now-closed Jean Luc’s Bistro, where Sebastien Bonneu met chef/owner Jean-Luc Salles, who hired him the next day as pastry chef.

A few years later, Bonneu started cooking at Vespaio, where he met chef Ryan Sampson. Not long after that, Bonneu, Sampson and fellow local chef Jesse Griffiths got their hands on a whole pig and set out to process it themselves.

Sebastien Bonneu feeds his ducks and chickens in the morning at Countryside Farm in 2008.  Nell Carroll/American-Statesman

Growing up, Bonneu watched his parents raise rabbits and pigs as show animals. “But not all of these were good enough to show, ” he says. So his parents, often with the help of neighbors, would kill, clean and butcher the animals.

“The day I started doing it (with Sampson and Griffiths), I just started remembering” how it was done, he says. “They would start Friday night and by Saturday they would have pâté. Everybody helped out. We shared the bounty. This is how they used to do it.

“Now, people buy what they need for the day. Fifty years ago, it was a whole different deal, ” he says.

Sampson, who has been the head chef at Vespaio for six years, says Bonneu kept talking about knocking out the pig, so “I brought a gun ’cause I knew that that wouldn’t work, ” he says. “(Killing the pig yourself) gets you down to earth when you realize it’s going to squeal, ” no matter how you do it, he says.

After processing that first pig with his fellow chefs, Sebastien Bonneu decided he wanted to not only process meat, but revive that way of thinking about food — where nothing is wasted and you know exactly where what you eat comes from.

He knew from working in the restaurant industry that the demand for this type of fresh, local and well-grown meat was there, so he started butchering other people’s animals. A pig here, a rabbit there. A few dozen chickens, then a handful of ducks.

Sebastien Bonneu of Countryside Farm Products waits for costumers at his tent during the Farmer’s Market in downtown Austin, Texas in 2008. Rodolfo Gonzalez/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

He and Esther had been wanting to get out of the city, so a year ago they moved to start Countryside Farm on 8 acres in Cedar Creek and put in orders for chicken eggs and duck hatchlings.

When they moved to the farm, their daughter, Margaux, had just turned 1. It was important to both Esther, 32, and Sebastien that Margaux stay connected to the process, from feeding and watering the birds from birth and gathering eggs every few days, to answering her question of “C’est mort?” (“Is it dead?”) after she had seen her father’s work in the butchering room.

“We want her to understand where the food comes from and how to treat animals humanely, ” Esther Bonneu says. “As she grows, she sees that we give her good things and she’ll be more healthy as a person because of it.

“Plus, it’s so much fun for her, ” Esther Bonneu says. Margaux, now almost 2 1/2, calls the ducks “quacks quacks” and the chickens “pio pios” — Spanish for “cheep cheep.”

Sebastien Bonneu got over the cute factor a long time ago. “You look at it and it’s a cute bunny, ” he says after passing a dozen white-haired, red-eyed New Zealand rabbits. “When it’s 6 pounds, it’s not that cute anymore.”

And when he’s working overnight to process nearly 70 rabbits to meet customers’ growing demand, he doesn’t have time to get caught up in cute.

He has a few machines that help him clean the thousands of birds he processes a year, but a lot of the work is done by hand. Plucking the fine duck feathers, for example, requires a dexterity that even Margaux has mastered.

Predators also present a challenge. One coyote can ruin months of work. Sebastien Bonneu has killed two bobcats and countless coyotes. He sets traps along his fence and hangs up the ones he catches as a warning to others. Can’t do much about the heat, though, which was the culprit in 40 chicken deaths earlier this summer.

It’s expensive to feed the animals the high-protein diet he knows produces the best meat. He says it costs $40 a day to grow the hundreds of ducks because the soybean-based feed costs so much.

“Almost all of these ducks are ready to go, ” he says, walking among the full-grown, black, brown and white Muscovy and Mullard ducks cooling off in the shade of a tree.

Many of the ducks roaming around the farm come from France, although they are hatched in California. “They are pretty expensive from the beginning, ” Sebastien Bonneu says. He’ll sell the whole bird for $6 a pound, a breast for $13 a pound and a leg for $12 a pound. Whole chickens are about $5 a pound.

“The way that I work on this is like as a chef, ” he says, pointing out which ducks are close to being ready for slaughter. “If it looks good on the outside, it will look good on the inside, ” he says. He knows that chefs around town want duck meat with lots of yellow fat streaks .

He calculates how much protein to feed which birds to guarantee tender and rich meat. He knows which varieties of duck work best for confit and which rabbits work for terrine versus those that belong in stew. A flock of baby geese that will be arriving soon signal that planning for Christmas dinners is already under way.

“What do you need? What do you not have?” he asks chefs in the area. “If there’s something they want, they might have to wait four or five months, but they’ll get it.”

Sampson says Vespaio is Sebastien Bonneu’s biggest account, buying about $3,000 worth of lamb, chicken and rabbit a week.

Sampson says he chooses Countryside Farm over commercial distributors because Bonneu’s meat doesn’t have hormones or antibiotics and because it’s local. Aquarelle, Cipollina and Wink also buy meat from Countryside.

Chef Sonya Cote speaks with Sebastien Bonneu of Countryside Farm, who stopped by East Side Show Room in Austin, in 2011. Rodolfo Gonzalez/American-Statesman

A more unusual specialty is the young feral pigs Sebastien Bonneu shoots on a friend’s property. Pigs, unlike deer, are not a regulated hunting animal, and they are a nuisance to many Texas landowners. He sells them at market and nearly always runs out, but if you tell him you want one, he’ll make it a point to go out that week and kill one and bring it to market. He outsources the butchering of pigs because of a complicated licensing process.

Business is pretty good for him, too, at the Austin Farmers’ Market downtown and at the Triangle. (Individual customers can call him at (512) 363-2310 for more information or special requests.) “People come up to me and say, ‘That’s what chicken looked like when I was a kid, ‘” Sebastien Bonneu says.

Esther Bonneu says it’s important that the whole family comes out on market days.

“We like to be able to meet the customers, ” she says. “It’s important for them to know who we are and what we believe, so that they know a little bit more about where their food came from and how it got there.”

Buying meat this way costs more for individual customers and restaurants, but it’s an acknowledgement of the amount of work that goes into raising the animals to Sebastien Bonneu’s standards.

He wants to try new birds – he’ll soon be raising guineas and pheasants – because he says he gets bored doing the same breeds, but he’s still a businessman first. He knows that people are always going to buy big-breasted Cornish game hens because that’s what’s popular.

Christina Shideler and Alex Stone-Tharp bought a Cornish game hen from Sebastien Bonneu at last week’s Wednesday night farmers’ market.

“We could get an entire bird for $8, ” Stone-Tharp says.

“And it’s better than chicken, ” adds Shideler, who once lived in France and misses the markets there. Buying local meat at the farmers’ market “is certainly more expensive, but it’s just a part of your life, and you need to take the time and energy” to buy food this way, she says.

How to build a better bánh mì at home

Editor’s note: This story was originally published August 10, 2011. With Matthew Odam’s list of the top 10 bánh mì shops in Austin, I dug it out of the archives so you can get some tips on making this popular sandwich at home.

Making bánh mì at home isn’t difficult, as long as you have a place to get a fresh, crusty French baguette. Laura Skelding / American-Statesman

Subway has nothing on bánh mì.

There’s a time and a place for a $5 footlong stuffed with cold cuts and shredded lettuce, but the bánh mì– a Vietnamese sandwich served on a baguette with pâté, mayonnaise, pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber, cilantro, jalapeños and meat or tofu — packs a serious punch, often for less than $4 a sandwich, including tax.

Bánh mì (prounounced “BUN-mee”) is the ultimate fusion food, a remnant of the French occupation of Vietnam in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when baguettes, pâté and mayonnaise entered Vietnamese cuisine.

When the French lost control of the country in the mid-1950s, the sandwich remained and has become one of the most widely embraced Vietnamese dishes around the world.

Bánh mì are less sloppy and fried than po’ boys, but the distinction becomes less clear at places like Tam Deli in North Austin, where you’ll find a deep fried shrimp banh mi that could be mistaken for its Cajun cousin. Some restaurants serve the vegetables on the side so that the bread won’t get soggy if you buy one to go.

READ MORE: The best places to eat bánh mì in Austin 

The name, which means “wheat cake” in Vietnamese, refers to both the bread and the sandwich, and it can be difficult to find just the right bread in a place like Austin, where there aren’t many places specializing in Vietnamese baked goods.

Don’t live near a bánh mì shop? If you think about the sandwich in elements — the bread, the pickle, the bite, the green, the meat, the sauce — you can create your own spin on one of Vietnam’s signature exports.

RELATED: How to make a grilled zucchini bánh mì

The bread

The baguettes used to make banh mi sandwiches usually contain both wheat and rice flours, which give the bread an even lighter texture and crispier crust than traditional baguettes. You might have to settle for whatever long crusty loaf your supermarket is selling. You can substitute a hoagies or ciabatta if you absolutely have to, but one of the best alternatives to a baguette is a toasted Mexican bolillo. Whatever bread you choose, tear some of the bread out of the middle to create a pocket for the ingredients and toast the bread until the outside is crispy. After all, the bread is merely a shell for what’s inside.

A banh mi sandwich isn’t hard to make at home if you can find good crusty bread with a soft interior. Laura Skelding / American-Statesman

The pickle

Almost all bánh mì sandwiches come with a light slaw of pickled carrots and daikon, a long white Asian radish found at specialty stores and Asian markets. It’s easy to quickly pickle your own thinly sliced or julienned vegetables by letting them marinate for 15 minutes in a mixture of rice vinegar or white wine vinegar and a little salt and sugar.

If you want to experiment, try using kimchi, the fermented Korean condiment, or a quick pickle with other vegetables such as radishes or beets.

The green

Bánh mì really isn’t bánh mì without fresh cilantro and long, thin slices of cucumbers, the cool elements that make the sandwich taste so fresh. You can substitute or supplement the cilantro with other fragrant herbs and leafy greens such as Thai basil, Mexican tarragon, watercress, sorrel or even mint. For a cucumber alternate that still adds a cool crunch, you could use thinly sliced raw zucchini, squash or jicama.

The bite

Jalapeños give most bánh mì their bite, but you could just as easily turn to serranos or sriracha hot sauce for some kick. Want an even milder sandwich? Try thinly sliced green peppers.

The meat

The original Vietnamese baguette sandwich relied on spreadable meats like pâté, but now you’re just as likely to find barbecue pork, ham, rotisserie chicken, shrimp or meatballs on bánh mì. You can marinate thin slices of pork tenderloin or pork chops and then pan sear in a pan, but leftover grilled steak or pulled pork or chicken work just as well. Tofu marinated in soy sauce, garlic and ginger or tempeh can be used instead of meat.

The spread

Mayonnaise has replaced butter as the primary spread on bánh mì, but you don’t have to stop there. You can use the slightly sweet Japanese Kewpie mayo, or doctor up your own by whisking mayo with chile paste, hot sauce, minced herbs, cayenne pepper, lime juice or fish sauce. Chutney can add an element of sweet, too.